The Bigger Picture: Why Talk About Pleasure - Neha Patel

The South and Southeast Asia Resource Centre moderates e-Forum discussions every two months on a cutting edge topic in sexuality. This article is based on the first e-Forum discussion on ‘Sexual Pleasure, Sexuality, and Rights’, which ran from October 16, 2005 – December 27, 2005. The forum had almost 200 participants and as a result, a lively and substantive discussion on issues of sexual pleasure. 

Neha Patel 

Pleasure. Feels good. Forbidden. Luxurious. Exciting. Shameful. Curious. Decadent. Indulgent. Hidden. Individual. Guilty. Easy. Crazy. Passionate. 

What is it about the pursuit of sexual pleasure that motivates people to negate it as an ‘illegitimate’ form of pleasure? What is it about thinking, constructing, and understanding how we get sexual pleasure that prevents us from actually getting it? The concept of sexual pleasure has remained on the periphery of the activist dialogue in South and Southeast Asia, considered ‘elitist,’ acknowledged only when the ‘genuine’ issues have been addressed; as an afterthought – as something we can ‘indulge’ in only after we remove all the pain and abuse. As if when we remove all the violence, what will eventually remain is a sexuality we can automatically enjoy! 

When it comes to sexual pleasure, it has always been easier to discuss what we shouldn’t be doing, as opposed to what we want to be doing. The language of sexual pleasure has been restrictive, fear-based and limiting. It constantly tries to set boundaries for ‘normal’ pleasure. Advocates for ‘sexual wellbeing and pleasure,’ often hear about how that means individuals have the ability to be ‘free of sexually transmitted infections’ and ‘free of coercion, discrimination, and violence’. We do not hear of the ability to ‘have as much pleasure as possible’ or ‘define sexual pleasure for oneself’. 

When trying to talk about sexual pleasure, especially in South and Southeast Asia, we hear, ‘Oh, we can’t discuss that. It isn’t a part of our culture’. Morality gets thrown into the ring all too often. However, principles of sexuality are included in many discourses – reproductive health, gender, HIV/AIDS, sexual health, adolescents, LGBTIQ, violence against women, class, religion, sexual rights and many more. These diverse frameworks constantly interact with each other when we develop programmes, policy, and guidelines around sexuality. Yet, it isn’t enough. There is a need to delve deeper into the conceptual basis and assumptions around sexual pleasure and examine the connections to people’s choices, individual and public health, and well-being. We have then to ask ourselves: how does pleasure matter?

How do we talk about pleasure?

We almost always look to language first to try to see if it can convey our diverse realities and multiple experiences. But there is no one way to think, talk about, analyze, construct, express, experience, view, or ensure sexual pleasure. What is defined as sexual pleasure in one context today, for you or someone else, may not be defined as such the next day. What are our assumptions and ideas around sexual pleasure? Why do we construct pleasure in the ways we do? 

In speaking of sexual pleasure, our language needs to be fluid, retain several meanings at the same time, be understood in diverse contexts, and expanded to include a range of realities. Some have argued that the reason we find it so difficult to talk about issues of sexual pleasure is because unlike other issues, there is no one framework or definition of sexuality from which we operate. However, the question becomes: ‘Do we even want a framework in the first place?’ Because sexual pleasure is so subjective, developing a framework would only further serve to define boundaries for sexuality, ‘normalising’ certain behaviours and identities and marginalising what is still least understood. And, if we have one standard language for talking about sexual pleasure, we inevitably dismiss all the ideas and concepts that don’t yet have a label, category, or term. 

For instance, researchers are constantly devising studies that define how long the ‘normal’ woman’s orgasm lasts; or how many she can have in the course of a day. Or what a ‘normal’ man’s penis size is when he is aroused. Or what kinds of ‘normal’ emotions people experience in sex. They try also to develop indicators to understand what ‘out of control sexuality’ is: how much sex during the week is ‘too much’, when does it become an ‘obsession’ or ‘addiction’? What do these ‘norms’ serve to do except to define boundaries that make those who don’t fit into them think about the inevitable ‘abnormal’?

Where do we talk about pleasure?

Medical, media, and commercial interest groups have carved out a space for themselves in the discussion around sexual pleasure. The medical community commonly leads the discussion on developing technologies that enhance pleasure and conducting research on devising indicators for ‘normal’ experiences and expressions of sexual pleasure. The media occupies a space that allows it to create ads that have bold sexual pleasure-seeking messages and images. The ‘pleasure industry’ largely markets and develops toys and pleasure supplements. But what about activist groups? 

The space for sexual pleasure discussions and debates has been fragmented at best, at least from a South and Southeast Asian perspective, and activists are still trying to find the language to talk about it, and create more constructive spaces to do so. The feminist movement has been one such space, but it has not been a uniformly welcoming or affirmative space. In India, feminists have brought many difficult, taboo, and ground-breaking ideas and debates to the public sphere – violence against women, women’s rights, contraception, and abortion (in relation to family planning) – with many successful outcomes. However, their engagement with sexual pleasure, and even sexuality, has been mixed. Recently, feminists are increasingly talking about sexuality, but largely in connection to HIV/AIDS (and that too, only in relation to risk and safety), violence against women, and migration issues. Sexual pleasure has not yet fully entered the realm of discussion.

What about ‘control’ and ‘freedom’ related to sexual pleasure?

The boundaries around sexual pleasure reflect personal judg-ments and values that are often restrictive and reflect a culture of shame and silence. The concept of ‘appropriateness’ associated with sexuality in public and private leads to a set of rules to regulate the experience and expression of sexuality and pleasure.

We are constantly trying to define ‘appropriate limits’ so that we are careful we are not excessive, or indulgent in any way. ‘Don’t eat too many sweets – you will gain too much weight.’ ‘Don’t’ drink too much alcohol – it is bad for you.’ ‘Don’t work too much – it isn’t healthy.’ We are always supposed to exercise self restraint when we do things that are pleasurable for us! But still, it is much simpler to discuss ‘good sense’ for one’s health, livelihood, and wellbeing than to talk about it with regards to sexuality. ‘Don’t have too much fun with sex – it means you are a pervert.’ What is an ‘excessive sexuality’ anyway? Having ‘too much’ sex? Having too much ‘good sex’? With the ‘wrong’ partner/s? Too many partners? All of these seem to matter. Is it with your spouse (in which case, it is considered less excessive because you are ‘supposed’ to have sex with your spouse)? Is it with someone of the same sex (it is considered ‘abnormal’)? Is it for the sole purpose of sexual pleasure (there is something wrong about pursuing someone for sexual pleasure alone)? 

Even though we might talk mainly about how society and norms regulate our sexual pleasure, we must also examine how we censor ourselves and judge, limit and police our desires, thoughts, and actions, and how we censor others. How this censorship translates into public debates and public censorship is another interesting topic of analysis. 

For example, it makes most people uncomfortable that someone could have sex everyday with different people because it ‘feels good,’ especially if that someone is a woman. People’s immediate reac-tion is to ask about her ‘emotional stability,’ and ‘insecurity with self’. It becomes logical to delve into her school record, accomplishments, family background, friends, choice of job, choice of partners, mental health, and other aspects of her life to try to figure out – what could be the cause of such ‘carelessness’ and ‘immorality’? And, once a ‘cause’ is attributed, there will be further examination into its ‘effects’ on her sexuality. Because she slept with a different partner everyday, it resulted in poor self-confidence, poor grades, ‘depraved’ friends, reduced ambition, and a host of other horrible outcomes that are ‘obviously’ the result of having frequent sex with different people – for no other purpose than that it feels good. Although there are plenty of examples that refute the ‘cause and effect’ example given, people still want to know why other people want to have so much sex. 

At the end of the day, we are still uncomfortable with the idea that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is just that – the pursuit of sexual pleasure – and that it doesn’t necessarily have to be laden with a perspective of ‘morality’ and ‘decency’ and ‘normalcy.’ Or that it has to be legitimised by marriage (between a man and a woman, don’t forget), a committed relationship, love, intimacy, and other sanctioned spaces for sexuality to be expressed or experienced. Sexuality, and as a consequence, sexual pleasure, has become unnecessarily sacred for people. Which is fine up to a point, it can be; but, does it have to be at the expense of trying to make everyone express, experience, and understand sexuality the same way?

Sexual pleasure as a ‘Right’ – is it a problem?

When people use the term ‘sexual rights,’ it encompasses many aspects: the right to information, choice, well-being, pleasure, expression, access, treatment, and services with regards to sexuality. But what if that expression is harmful to another? There are lines that might be definitive concerning ‘harm,’ but what about those grey areas that are not free and clear ‘harms’ to all people? Talking about sexual pleasure as a ‘right’ forces us to define how to go about providing for its freedom/regulation. So, should we at all consider sexual pleasure as a ‘right’ given that in doing so, it will fall under the purview of the State? Does that mean that all government-funded health programs would have to include indicators of an acceptable level of pleasure that the State has the responsibility to ensure were experienced as a result of the program in question? What would it look like if fulfilling sexual rights is taken on by the government? 

The contentions around sexual pleasure become even more complicated when we talk about pleasure in terms of particular groups. How we articulate our claim for sexual rights influences how those rights are respected, protected and fulfilled by society and the State. Making a claim to rights by basing it on a particular identity can become problematic, because we know that sexual and gender identities are not always constant. 

We also need to look at how these rights would play out for different groups. If we say that people with disabilities have the right to sexual pleasure, then do we think that State benefits should provide for assisted sex for those who can’t experience sexual pleasure on their own? Alternatively, can sex workers be employed by the State as social workers providing a public service to which a certain community has rights? Or, when we talk about young people’s sexual rights, including their rights to information, we have to ask ourselves why we think they have a right to information – is it so they can make their own choices, or are they to make the ones that the State wants? If the State started defining appropriate and acceptable forms and levels of sexual pleasure, the larger debate we need to have is can these same institutions that want to regulate pleasure, affirm it?

Public ‘Good’ and individual liberties: are they exclusive of each other?

When talking about public health, we talk in terms of protecting the public against ‘something.’ Usually, it is something, such as polio or malaria, a disease that can cause large scale harm. But what happens when the ‘something’ becomes a ‘someone’? Is that an acceptable approach for public health? 

For example, in the efforts to prevent the spread of HIV, often some groups of people are scapegoated - homosexuals, sex workers, drug addicts, and migrants, most commonly. Certain behaviours are attributed to the whole group making them one monolithic mass, rendering them responsible for protecting the public from them. Is there a way to reconcile public health approaches and individual rights? 

Many States equate public health with public morality, and appoint themselves as moral guardians. So, for example, in India, Indian Penal Code, Section 377 criminalises consensual, same-sex adult behaviour; public displays of affection warrant fines; sex work is associated with ‘obscenity’ and ‘lasciviousness’, and, pornography is always associated with ‘depravity of character’. In other cases, it is society that sets limits: sexual relationships are accepted only within the context of marriage; pleasure-seeking behaviour in women is thought to be a sign of too much aggressiveness and ‘loose’ morality; adolescents are bombarded with fear-based messages to elicit ‘behaviour change’ in the direction of sexual abstinence. Expanding this dialogue to include discussions that don’t pit public good against individual pleasure is a start in trying to find creative solutions that reflect people’s diversity in experiencing pleasure.


We have to think of different questions, develop new ways of engaging with existing frameworks, create an expanded space for debate, and share more of our individual and collective experiences with each other. We must use the resources we have to encourage a more active dialogue around issues of sexual pleasure. This might eventually bring about systemic and institutional changes that reflect diversity and integrate sexual pleasure as an issue in policies and programs. 

Neha Patel is the Research and Advocacy Coordinator at The South and Southeast Asia Resource Centre on Sexuality. She moderated the e-forum discussion on ’Sexual Pleasure, Sexuality, and Rights’